Alaska editorial: Feds were right to reject halibut rule

Posted: Thursday, March 08, 2007

This editorial appeared in the Peninsula Clarion:

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To folks in Washington, D.C., it may not seem like there's much difference between halibut charter clients on Alaska fishing trips being allowed to catch one fish a day or two.

The national powers that be, being far removed from Alaska geographically, also seem separated by an ideological gulf at times over how best to govern our state.

Given the governmental disconnect, it's easy to see how authorities on the national level could sign off on a one-a-day bag limit for Southeast and Southcentral halibut charter clients during certain periods of the summer.

The limit was imposed by the International Pacific Halibut Commission as a way to reduce the halibut charter catch, which has ballooned in recent years, exacerbating the already prickly resource conservation and allocation issues surrounding Alaska commercial and recreational halibut fishing.

The idea looks good on paper - at least we imagine it would to someone in D.C. who may not be intimately familiar with the issue. And yet the U.S. Commerce and State departments didn't give the proposal their approval, which was required for the catch limit to take effect.

Perhaps representatives of those departments heard the outcry from Alaska generated by the proposed limit. Perhaps they agreed with those in the charter and tourism industries - and most anyone who's gone on a halibut charter - that the one-fish bag limit is an unnecessarily onerous way to combat allocation and overfishing issues.

Or perhaps the reason was a purely bureaucratic one - that the North Pacific Fishery Management Council should be the agency to decide such issues, rather than the International Pacific Halibut Commission.

Whatever the reason, the outcome is a good one.

Limiting charter clients to one fish a day for June 15-30 in Southcentral and from June 15-July 31 in Southeast is a clumsy stab at the problem of the charter catch exceeding the guideline harvest level.

The proposal has the potential to significantly harm charter businesses. Bookings during one-fish limit periods could become as scarce as a prime camping spot on Memorial Day weekend. Charter fishing is partly about fun, but it's also about food. Why would a prospective client pay for the opportunity to catch one fish when they could wait a few weeks and have a chance at two?

If rescheduling isn't an option, staying on shore becomes a more likely one. A typical halibut charter out of Homer runs in the neighborhood of $200. With the perspective of only taking home one fish, that meat could acquire a hefty price tag. If a client were lucky enough to hook a barn door behemoth, they'd get their money's worth. Those reeling in chickens, however, may do better to stop at the supermarket fish counter than board a charter boat.

That's not to say, however, that no restrictions should be placed on charter fishing. The health of the resource must take first priority in any allocation decisions. Second to that is considering how to divvy up the fish in a reasonable, equitable and - most importantly - sustainable manner.

That means looking at both sides of the allocation debate - commercial and recreational. A reasonable guideline harvest level should be set for charter boats and they should be held to it. But it is unfair to impose catch limits to that end without also addressing waste and overfishing issues on the commercial side - specifically, bycatch.

As the North Pacific Fishery Management Council delves into these issues, our hope is they seek allocation restrictions that balance burdens to the industry with the potential benefits derived from the decisions.

The one-fish charter limit wasn't worth the financial trouble it would have landed the charter industry in.

Let's hope the next idea is a keeper.



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